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Lakewood Playhouse’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ packs a wallop

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“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates

 

Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest American plays of the 20th century. It is therefore surprising that it has never been produced at the Lakewood Playhouse during the entirety of that beloved institution’s 77-year history – until now. For the first time, Lakewood Playhouse brings the Miller classic to the stage, marvelously directed by James Venturini. The result is a powerful drama that lives up to its reputation. Lakewood Playhouse has assembled a cast and crew that delivers a theatrical experience that evokes a healthy dose of self-reflection.

The play is a psychological examination of Willy Loman (Joseph Grant), a traveling salesman with an inflated self-image and a tenacious faith in the American dream. Willy has invested the whole meaning of his existence in having his eldest son Biff (Tim Samland) becoming a larger and more successful version of himself. Biff, however, is an untethered wanderer, working on farms and ranches out west. Biff’s return to the family’s humble Brooklyn home is the catalyst that brings the family’s unresolved issues to a head.

At 60 years of age, Willy is becoming exhausted by his traveling sales job and is beginning to experience ever more powerful delusions, revisiting episodes in the past. Biff decides to stay in town and try to be what Willy has always wanted him to be. Also home are Linda (Kathi Aleman), Willy’s loving and long-suffering wife, and Happy (Gabe Hacker), the couple’s younger son who has a small time job in a store and uses deceit as a tool to pick up women.

The whole play is a rich tapestry into which are woven a cluster of themes that work at various levels. On the surface it is a convoluted family drama of flawed people caught in a slow burning tragedy. At its heart, “Salesman” is an expose of the dark side of the consumerist version of the American dream. Willy is so locked into the dream that he becomes increasingly unable to see clearly or measure the true worth of people and things. He has an oversized belief in his own abilities as a salesman and is unable to see that his true gift is in working with his hands and growing plants. He should be out there with Biff working on a farm, but he is too wed to a commonly perceived hierarchy that places white-collar labor over that of blue-collar. The audience can see Willy’s plight as clearly as it sees that there is no way that Willy can extricate himself from it. Therein lies the tragedy.

Across the board, the cast is fantastic. The actors inhabit their characters so well that they are able to lead their audience deep into the abyss so that it can participate in the monumental downfall of an ordinary man. Grant, a seasoned actor, says a great deal with the simplest of gestures. In the opening scene, he arrives at his slumbering little house and sets down his suitcases and then flexes his fingers showing that he is growing old and stiff and that his burden is heavy.

Aleman does a wonderful job in her portrayal of Willy’s wife Linda, perhaps the most complex character. Linda has a foot in both worlds. She is well aware of the reality of Willy’s hardship and of a household barely able to keep from drowning in debt. Yet she can also see into Willy’s world and accepts his image of himself as the conquering salesman. She can delight in seeing her sons shaving together and then castigate them as “animals” for their disregard of their father.

Samland is agile in his portrayal of Biff. The role requires him to portray both the arrogant, entitled golden boy that appears in Willy’s flashbacks and the conflicted, thirty-something man-boy still trapped between his father’s expectations and his own desire to be authentic and live closer to the land.

Hacker, as Happy, plays the younger son, who is an incarnation of Willy’s lower self (as Biff is his higher self), seeming to feel no qualms over using lies and deceit. These are merely tools that he can use to fulfill his desires for women and extra cash. He is well on his way to becoming a petty con man.

Martin Goldsmith is beguiling as Charlie, a good man who is one of the redeeming characters in the story. Charlie’s son Bernard is played by high schooler Charlie Stevens, a young talent that is now in his third consecutive main stage production at the Lakewood Playhouse.

Kudos also go to Dave Hall for his portrayal of Willy’s much older brother Ben, the man who got rich quick from a diamond mine in Africa. His refrain, “when I was seventeen I went into the jungle…” Seems to model Willy’s notion that wealth comes mysteriously, as if from a black box.

The supporting cast, Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson, Eric Cuestas-Thompson, Jackie-Lyn Villava-Cua, Curtis Beech, Vivian Bettoni and Kira Zink all help to make the playhouse’s “Salesman” an intense experience. The rest of the crew handled sets, costumes, sound and lighting so well that the characters are firmly anchored in their world and the audience is drawn in with them.

“Salesman” turns out to be quite durable as a work of art. If anything, “Salesman” is even more relevant in today’s American plutocracy than it was during the prosperous post-war years in which it first appeared (1949-50).

In the end, Willy’s greatest sales job was in selling himself on the unreal version of himself. He’d so convinced himself of his own greatness that he is unequipped to cope with intrusions of reality. The final scene is a kind of Greek chorus in which Willy is summed up. Charlie sums up the essence of the salesman as he who is “way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.” Counter to this, Biff asserts that Willy “never knew himself.” Happy retreats, to persist as a shadow-version of Willy.

When the lights finally went down, the audience sat in stunned silence. Then came thunderous applause. You realize that there’s a little bit of Willy in all of us, as we all sell ourselves on self-images that diverge from authenticity. There is a bleakness that comes with this realization. Then you exit the theater into the fresh air outside. Like Biff, we emerge from it all feeling free, ready for a new beginning.

“Death of a Salesman” runs through March 13. For further information visit www.lakewoodplayhouse.org or call (253) 588-0042.

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